When Lone Justice exploded onto the L.A. club scene in 1983, plenty of folks expected them to become one of the biggest bands in the nation within a matter of months. The combination of Maria McKee's vocals (which suggested she could be Dolly Parton's little sister gone wild in the big city), Ryan Hedgecock's guitar (a blazing fusion of country, rockabilly and punk influences), Marvin Etzioni's bass (who anchored the melodies with his loping, rock-solid bottom end), and Don Heffington's drumming (some of the most profound shuffles ever captured by recording equipment) was joyously combustible, and everyone from Tom Petty to Dolly Parton stepped up to see them deliver the message on-stage in their hometown. However, Lone Justice was so universally expected to be the next big thing that Geffen Records overcooked their self-titled 1985 debut album with overbearing production and big-name guest stars, and the band never quite overcame the weight of the expectations set before them. But if you want to know what all that early hype was about, This Is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983 allows fans to hear what the band sounded like before outside hands started applying the polish. This Is Lone Justice is a 12-song demo cut live to two-track tape with engineer David Vaught in December 1983; the recording is clean and straightforward, offering a well-detailed but unadorned portrait of this music, and the band sounds brilliantly tight and intuitive, meshing perfectly and creating a forceful, organic sound that's more than the sum of the impressive parts. While McKee's voice is clearly the drawing card here -- if any performer could be called a charming flamethrower, it's her -- the band is a near-perfect match for her rollicking country-punk testimony, and it's not at all difficult to imagine how great they must have sounded on-stage in front of an enthusiastic crowd. While Lone Justice's debut album was too tricked up for its good, This Is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes is a bit too unadorned in spots, and a few judicious overdubs and a more artful mix might have better served these tunes (several of which never made it onto a Lone Justice album). But this remains a stronger and more engaging document of Lone Justice's brief moment of greatness than has ever seen authorized release, and 30 years on, this still sounds like a band that could have taken on the world if they'd been allowed to follow their own path.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming